We’ve all been there. You’re hurrying through a busy airport, desperately looking for a screen so you can find your gate number. Then you see the dreaded word: Delayed. You spot someone with an official looking lanyard and ask what’s causing the disruption, only to be met by a dismissive shrug.
Most people now will turn to social media to try and get to the bottom of the issue. As Abhi Chacko, head of IT commercial at Gatwick Airport says: “Many times we have faced a situation where the passengers know more than us from Twitter and Facebook.”
Now, Chacko wants all of Gatwick’s 21,000 staff members to know exactly what is going on in the airport by using a new smartphone app.
The idea originated through Chacko's personal embarrasment. Just one month into his new role, Chacko’s lanyard was spotted by a confused passenger looking for the correct bag drop area. Chacko didn’t know and had to physically walk the customer to an information board. As Chacko tells the story: “They looked at me with the view of: ‘Don’t you know anything? Don’t you work here?’”
Chacko now wants to make “the entire workforce in the airport campus in tune with the airport. So not just Gatwick staff but ground handlers, retailers, everyone." His solution was to partner with London-based startup Airport Labs and its Airport Community app.
The app is available through the Apple and Google app stores and only airport employees can sign in. Gatwick has administrative control and access is granted according to e-mail domains. For example [email protected] will be able to gain a PIN to use the app on their smartphone, much like WhatsApp registration.
The app is a cloud-based platform that plugs into various data streams, for everything from emergency status across runways, rail and road infrastructure, to real-time arrival and departure data. It is simply a case of the correct commercial agreements being in place and the relevant data taps being turned on.
In theory this will give all staff a full picture of how the airport is operating in real-time. Retailers can see when passenger numbers are spiking and baggage handlers can stay abreast of road and weather conditions. Want to know when your partner’s flight is due to land? You should be able to ask any member of staff for a real-time update on the flight status.
Each data stream comes with a traffic light system for alerts (green, amber and red) depending on the severity of an issue. Alerts can be set to push notifications if a certain metric goes over a pre-set threshold, such as a spike in passenger numbers flowing through the terminal.
There is a group chat feature, allowing teams to discuss relevant issues amongst key personnel without using outdated and unreliable radio or walkie talkie technology.
This modernisation is integral to what Chacko wants to achieve for the airport. He admits: “Our traditional communication channels are very hierarchical. By the time the information flows through these sort of hierarchies and communication channels it becomes extremely old and stale, because the situation is changing very rapidly.”
“This tool flattens that hierarchy,” says Chacko. “You send this information and everyone at the airport gets it.”
Gatwick is the launch partner for the app, meaning they do not have to pay, but they will be held up as a case study while Airport Labs looks to bring other airports on board.
The more airports that use the app, the more data it will have. If other airports decide to sign up then staff (like pilots and cabin crew) will be able to view the status of those airports in real-time.
The key for Chacko and Gatwick will simply come down to employee engagement. The airport will need employees to embrace the app if they are to become better informed passenger hosts. The question is: will they want to?